It may seem like a contradiction in terms, but there is nothing more Southern than Italian-inspired Americanized spaghetti and meat sauce. The version of spaghetti we eat in the South is about as authentic Italian as Chef Boyardee, but that doesn’t mean it’s not very good – if done correctly. In the South we like big plates of spaghetti noodles with a thick, rich meat sauce on top, and probably copious amounts of sprinkled-on parmesan cheese. All too often, however, we take the easy route when making spaghetti and meat sauce, to detrimental effect both in terms of flavor and healthfulness.
In many households, spaghetti night means opening up a jar of pre-made sauce, mixing it with browned ground beef, and serving it over cooked noodles. Ten-minutes flat and you have a meal ready to serve. Easy. But when is the last time you checked the ingredients on the back of a Prego or Ragu jar? You are likely to find large amounts of high fructose corn syrup and preservatives, neither of which are very good for you. But what about the “tomato puree” listed as a main ingredient in many jarred sauces? That has to make it healthy, right? Don’t be fooled. This is nothing more than a reconstituted processed tomato product made from tomato paste, which was made from tomatoes that have been dead for months – maybe years.
I think we need to change the spaghetti paradigm, and in so doing you will enjoy a much healthier and much fresher, better-tasting meat sauce for your noodles. The first step is to ditch the pre-made sauces. Some of them are tolerable taste-wise, and you can doctor them up to make them better, but they will never compare favorably to a homemade sauce. The second step is to accept a longer cooking process. Quick-fix spaghetti is almost like fast-food from your own kitchen – convenient and easy – so it may be hard to break from this approach. Once you do, however, you will not mind the extra time it takes to produce a far superior meat sauce.
3 strips bacon, chopped
1 lb. lean ground beef (at least 90% lean)
1 white onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 32-oz box chopped tomatoes, Pomi brand, or equivalent amount canned or fresh frozen (see previous article “Gameday Chili” for information on Pomi tomatoes)*
¼ cup tomato paste (I prefer Amore brand in a tube)
1 small can pureed tomatoes (if needed)
Extra virgin olive oil (a good brand here like Colavita; avoid Crisco and similar-priced)
½ tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1. Cook bacon in stainless-steel pot in 1 TBSP extra virgin olive oil over medium heat until crispy. Remove bacon pieces to small bowl, discard fat.
2. Season beef with salt and pepper. Brown beef in same pot in 2-3 TBSP extra virgin olive oil over medium heat.
3. Once beef is browned, add back the bacon pieces along with the chopped onion and pepper. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat 5-7 minutes, or until vegetables are softened, but not browned.
4. Add chopped garlic. Cook for about a minute. Add chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, thyme, oregano and red pepper flakes. If sauce is too thick, add pureed tomatoes to thin. Scrape up any particles stuck to the pot. Cover and simmer on low for at least 30 minutes, but one hour is better.
5. Serve over cooked spaghetti noodles. Sprinkle fresh grated parmesan cheese on top. Enjoy.
That’s about as simple as it gets, folks, and yet this sauce will run circles around any pre-made jarred sauce you will find. Feel free to experiment with the ingredients. Sometimes I like to add chopped mushrooms. You might like to try it with a red bell pepper, which has a slightly sweeter flavor than a green. Add a dash of red wine vinegar for a nice kick. If you want to cut back on the fat content, eliminate the bacon step and use ground turkey – still very good. Above all, use quality ingredients. If your spices have been on the shelf more than six months, throw them away and buy new. This is an quick, easy and healthy meat sauce with good depth of flavor – nothing more and nothing less. Let me know how it turns out for you.
*Per Ashleigh’s good comment below, try San Marzano tomatoes.